Did you know Facebook built their own “social search engine” called Graph Search? Of course you did. They called the whole world to a great “unveiling” yesterday.
Stocks rose in anticipation as the mystery grew. Would it be a search engine they revealed, to go head-to-head with Google? A smartphone? An ad network to compete with AdSense?
It was none of the above, and stock began to plunge. It wasn’t because analysts expected too much, although some did. And it wasn’t just because they were underwhelmed, either, although that was part of it.
It’s that anyone with the slightest understanding of Facebook’s predicament knows their big challenge remains on the mobile front, where Facebook is, as Zuckerberg feared, just an app (iOS integration notwithstanding).
Graph Search doesn’t change that. Realistically, how much “power searching” do we expect people to do from their mobile devices?
“Siri, find the nearest Italian restaurant.”
“Google, navigate to Luigi’s Italian Restaurant.”
“Facebook, find me Italian restaurants nearby liked by my friends who also like the Buffalo Bills and are also single women looking for an open relationship.”
Do you see the problem there? Facebook has finally built themselves a decent onsite search, which could have uses for casual and power searchers alike, although power searchers will get far more use out of it; its value increases with the complexity of the search.
Even power searchers are less likely to use such a feature extensively on mobile. When Siri and Google Voice Search can find local places, show you reviews, and navigate you to them, what will Facebook bring to the table to compete with this? A product that improves with complexity, and is limited by your social connections? A mobile partnership with Bing could help, but might distract from the focus of the feature, and would still be hobbled by being “just an app”.
That said, Facebook needed to take a first, tentative step into the search market, and Graph Search certainly qualifies. It is one more piece in a puzzle we know they’re eventually building despite their public protests: a Facebook mobile OS. Nate Elliott (analyst at Forrester) may be right when he says, “The big news isn’t that Facebook has fixed its search tool; the big news is that they didn’t do this long ago.” Better late, though, than never.
Graph Search arguably is more powerful in many ways than Google+ or Twitter’s onsite searches or Search Plus Your World. Given Facebook’s big head start on Google and much larger user base than its rivals, superior onsite social search is the least you would expect.
The lingering question is whether Facebook is getting better at search faster than their competitors are getting better at mobile and social. Twitter was essentially born on mobile and already has a profitable social business model there.
Google has Android (and an iOS Search deal), a strong handful of mobile apps, and a thousand channels to nudge their hundreds of millions of users onto Google+. They also have the capital, infrastructure, and R & D to test new technologies like Hangouts and Project Glass.
Facebook is building a growing number of services, in the attempt to grow beyond being “just a social network” or “just an app”. Where they are lacking, they have sought partnerships with companies like Apple and Microsoft. An operating system is the next logical step for their social platform, but there’s still one big problem: brand image.
Facebook is, putting it lightly, the most despised success story in the world of consumer brands. Surveys consistently show Facebook trailing well behind Apple, Google, and Amazon for consumer satisfaction. Their success rate at launching new products is abysmal, and even if we grant that some of that failure was due to poor execution, part of it is not being liked or trusted.
I doubt Graph Search will help this problem, either. The viral horror stories of privacy exposure, lost jobs, broken relationships and homes seems inevitable. These will resonate across the interwebs (as they always do), sending one message loud and clear: Facebook still has a problem. A big one. One which, to date, they’ve shown little interest in solving or even acknowledging.
Open Message to Mark Zuckerberg: People may not be leaving Facebook in droves yet (or then again, they may be), but that doesn’t mean they’re happy with you, trust you, or will follow where you lead. Worry less about monetization, worry more about the user experience, and you might actually become worthy of a place among the tech giants. Make Graph Search your first real step in that direction.